Spagnola: Maybe Philly Has Learned Not To Mess With These Cowboys

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Poor Philadelphia, just can't help itself.

From the fans to the newspapers to one Eagles player in particular. Will they ever learn?

Don't mess with Texas.

Why on earth this couple riding up the hotel elevator late Saturday night just had to take a shot at the Cowboys was beyond me, first complaining about all the Cowboys fans in the hotel lobby, then the guy smugly remarking to his female companion, "Tony Romo already is throwing interceptions."

Or the fact that those folks have always got to be throwing something, whether its beer on Jimmy Johnson after a game, snowballs at the Cowboys in general that one time or the perfunctory egg invariably at the Cowboys' incoming buses swinging toward the stadium, evidenced by the direct hit to the team bus we were on late Sunday afternoon.

Or all those one-finger salutes annually greeting the Cowboys arrival, The City of Brotherly Shove at its best from the parking lots.

Ah, but this time, they stepped up their game. The Philadelphia Inquirer *ran a cartoon in Sunday's edition mocking Romo: *Romo Action Figure, inscribed on the box with Warning: Choking Hazard – Limit Play to First Three Quarters, Avoid December, all in good fun of course … of course.

But just maybe, just maybe going too far was Eagles safety Malcom Jenkins, who decided about two hours before kickoff to get into a little verbal jostling match with Dez Bryant. I mean, if words were punches, they were throwing haymakers at each other while going through some pre-pregame warmups here Sunday night before this showdown for first place in the NFC East.

You'd have thought this was one of those heavyweight bout weigh-ins, although this was not for promotional purposes, words spitting out, jaw-to-jaw, heads wagging back and forth, up and down. Jenkins simply was carrying over the jawing from the first time around, the one three weeks ago when the Eagles trumped the Cowboys, 33-10 at AT&T. To the victor goes the spoils, one guesses – unless, of course, humility might be in order if you have to play 'em again so soon.

I mean, this one got so heated, the two guys had to be separated, like three times, Dez warded off initially by teammate Terrance Williams and another time by Williams and Cowboys secondary coach Jerome Henderson and company. The third time, well, think each had said their piece.

"I always got his back," Williams would say much later, much, much later.

Maybe Jenkins thought he could get in Dez's head. Maybe he thought if he lathered him up, Dez would emotionally implode during the game. Maybe he should reconsider.

Don't mess with Dez.

Because here is the bottom line's aftermath:

Cowboys 38, Eagles 27, before 69,596 at the Linc.

Dez Bryant six catches, 114 yards, averaging 19 yards a catch.

Dez Bryant three touchdowns, a single-game career high and most by a Cowboy since Miles Austin had three receiving scores against San Francisco in 2011.

Dallas vaults into first place in the NFC East with its 10-4 record, one game better than the Eagles (9-5) with two games remaining, the Cowboys magic number to clinch the division title now two. Any total of Cowboys wins and Eagles losses adding up to two will give Dallas the East and a playoff berth for the first time since 2009.

"That's what competitors do, we fight, we fight," Bryant would say after the Cowboys won their fourth game in the last five, a second straight and are now 2-0 in the month of December, supposedly the Cowboys' kryptonite. "We believe in one another, that's the key … believing in one another."

Maybe most of all, believing in Dez, or as former Cowboys defensive tackle Marcus Spears tweeted, "Can someone please back up the Brinks truck to @DezBryant house!!!" a direct reference to Bryant needing a new contract sooner or no later than early March of next year.

See, the first time around the Cowboys were far too stubborn trying to run the ball. Far too predictable lining up in their three-tight, one-receiver sets and trying to grind out yardage on the ground. All they were doing was inviting the Eagles, a defense ranked lower than the Cowboys in total yards and points allowed, to cram the line of scrimmage, as they did with nine at times.

Even when the Cowboys were going two-tight, two-wide, the Eagles were playing eight-man fronts, and ended up holding DeMarco Murray, the NFL's leading rusher, to a season-low 73 yards.

That meant singling up the Cowboys receivers, even Dez, playing basically a single-high coverage, and holding him to just four catches.

"You get paid to play single coverage," Dez said of corners, "and they played mostly single coverage in Dallas. Felt they weren't going to come out and change their coverage."

The Eagles didn't, and this time the Cowboys made them pay for picking their poison.

Poor Bradley Fletcher. The Eagles cornerback was no match for Dez, probably wondering today what in the world hit him.

On second-and-goal from the four, Romo lofted a beauty of a lob over Fletcher and into the awaiting arms of Bryant for a 14-0 Cowboys lead with 3:04 left in the first. Dez simply dropped the ball, turned to the end zone stands and put up the X, then quietly walked to the bench.

Then in the second, facing a second-and-10 at the Philly 26, lined up in three wide, with Fletcher again in single coverage and the Eagles playing single-safety high, Dez burned Fletcher right off the line of scrimmage, as if taking candy from a baby, easy touchdown, 21-0 Cowboys. Dez simply dropped the ball, turned to the end zone stands, threw up the X and walked nonchalantly toward the Cowboys sideline.

He wasn't done just yet. After some Cowboys slippage, allowing the Eagles to score 24 straight points to take a third-quarter 24-21 lead, Dez sets up Murray's second touchdown, a two-yard run, with his 22-yard catch to the 2, Cowboys 28, Eagles 24, with just 39 seconds left in the third.

And then came the dagger after J.J. Wilcox stole another possession for the Cowboys with his diving interception off a tipped pass. On third-and-seven from the Philly 25, once again Romo to Dez, as if they were throwing against air, his pass over the once-again burned Fletcher and coming down before single-safety high Nate Allen could arrive in the end zone, 35-24, Cowboys.

And what did Dez do? Yep, what was probably worse than maybe getting in Jenkins face, just dropped the ball, turned toward the stands, threw up the X and walked off.

Acting like "we just taking care of business, no time to celebrate," Dez would say. "Drop the ball and throw up the X."

Romo, who completed 22-of-31 passes for 265 yards, the three touchdowns and a passer rating of 129.1 – more than doubling his season-low of 53.7 from the first time against Philly – would issue these long, convoluted answers postgame as to why he and Dez were able to hook up, talking bracket coverage, robber coverage, single-high and all this rigmarole.

But as he walked off toward the bus to meet his dad, Romo turned, and with this wry smile, said, "We changed it up a little bit this time."

Yeah, they did. Sure, they remained persistent running the ball, Murray carrying 31 times for only 81 yards, maybe allowing the Eagles to develop this false sense of security since their eight- and nine-man fronts were thwarting the Cowboys' running game.

But the beauty of this offense is the numerous weapons available. Like tight end Jason Witten erupting, a season-high seven catches for 69 yards; Cole Beasley another four for 42; Williams reappearing with two catches for 19; and Lance Dunbar and Joe Randle combining for seven carries, 35 yards.

Ah-ha, and just think the Cowboys had 10 days between games this time, not dog-tired as they were in the first matchup, with about two and a half days between games after that ridiculous night game at the Giants the Sunday before meeting Philly on Thanksgiving.

"Just came out poised, I was focused," Bryant said. "We knew that this game was going to be big. We're not really out trying to prove nothing to nobody. We're trying to stay together, play together and understand from here on out, it's big games. We've got to stay together. We've got to block everybody else out. We can't be in to all of that."

So Philly, go ahead, crack your jokes, throw your eggs and flip your birds. Try to get under the Cowboys' skin.

But next time, a word to the wise: Don't mess with these Cowboys.

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